Brewing in Styles: Belgian Trappists & the Abbey Ale


by Martin Lodahl & Roger Bergen (Brewing Techniques)

Behind Abbey Walls


A belgian ale in an abbey glass


One of the first beers to really astound me was Chimay “rouge,” now usually seen in the United States as Chimay Première. It was at a formal beer tasting, a rather unusual event in those days, and the fellow conducting the tasting knew his beers well. To my northern European–American Protestant mind, the idea of monks brewing beer was an amazing one. And Trappist monks, no less! The beer was scarcely less intriguing than the idea, its richness and spiciness completely overwhelming my concept of what a beer should be. From shock over the intensity of the flavor I set the glass aside, coming back to it at times. At the end of the evening I bought a case!

This was the beginning of my fascination with the beers of Belgium, and beers in the Trappist and related abbey styles have intrigued and delighted me ever since. They are now readily available in many parts of North America, and beers in these and related styles are being brewed in some decidedly nontraditional breweries.

The idea of brewing beer in a monastery is an old one; ample evidence indicates that many monasteries maintained breweries as a matter of common provision, just as some made wine and others liqueurs. Before prohibitionist frenzy swept over Europe and the Americas, no one found the concept of monks producing and consuming alcoholic beverages to be especially jarring. It was in fact permitted by the Rule of St. Benedict, a set of principles and guidelines intended to instruct and govern religious communities; the Rule has been used in some form by most Roman Catholic monastic communities since the 9th century.

Benedict of Nursia is thought to have lived from the late 5th century to the middle of the 6th and as a young man was a religious hermit. Others came to study with him, attracted by his piety, and became the core of 12 small religious communities he established near Rome. Around 525–530 he founded the abbey of Monte Cassino between Rome and Naples; it was there that the Rule was developed, and monks from there began to spread monasticism based on the Rule across Europe. Monks who follow the Rule are generally called Benedictines, and after their training (novitiate) lead a life of work, prayer, study, and contemplation. Some are cloistered, living entirely within the walls of a monastery. Others live outside the community while remaining obedient to the Rule.

In time, some monks came to feel that some of the fire had gone from the Benedictine movement and that life in the abbeys was becoming a bit too comfortable. In the year 1098, St. Robert of Molesme founded a community of reformist monks in the French city of Cîteaux (in Latin, Cistercium), the root of a pair of orders now known as the Cistercian orders. The original Cistercian order was strict indeed, its vows including the observance of nearly complete silence, but as time passed this order too was “modernized,” not entirely to the satisfaction of all. Another reformer, the abbot Armand-Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé, founded the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance in 1664 at the abbey of La Trappe, in Normandy. To all of the old rules, including the daily manual labor, the silence, and the seclusion, was added an abstinence from meat. This practice is no longer followed as strictly as it once was, but Trappists still occasionally refer to the Cistercians of the Common Order as “meat eaters.”

Until this century, beer or wine (depending largely upon climate) was generally drunk with meals in preference to water, primarily because it was much safer to drink than the water from open wells and other sources prone to contamination. Monks had an additional reason to prefer beer in that it provided a degree of nutrition during the Lenten (and other) fasts. Because the Trappist order had abjured meat, they had perhaps a yet more pressing reason to find beer attractive, and the brewing of beer was carried on at abbeys, along with baking, cheese-making, and the growing of vegetables.

The French Revolution, and the Napoleonic era that followed, nearly completely destroyed monasticism in France and Belgium, and most of today’s abbeys were either founded or restored in the 19th and 20th centuries. Naturally, many began once more to brew beer for their own use; the idea of producing beer for sale to a lay public came later. Because their brewing tradition had been broken, the abbeys were in need of “technology transfer” from the outside world, and many employed secular brewers.


Click here to browse our selection of Belgian beer kits!


Chapter 40: The Proper Amount of Drink

Everyone has his own gift from God, one this and another that (1 Cor. 7:7). It is, therefore, with some uneasiness that we specify the amount of food and drink for others. However, with due regard for the infirmities of the sick, we believe that a half bottle of wine a day is sufficient for each. But those to whom God gives the strength to abstain must know that they will earn their own reward.

The superior will determine when local conditions, work or the summer heat indicates the need for a greater amount. He must, in any ease, take great care lest excess or drunkenness creep in. We read that monks should not drink wine at all, but, since the monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us at least agree to drink moderately, and not to the point of excess, for wine makes even wise men go astray.

However, where local circumstances dictate an amount much less than what is stipulated above, or even none at all, those who live there should bless God and not grumble. Above all else we admonish them to refrain from grumbling.

—From The Rule of St. Benedict, Timothy Fry, Ed.

(The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Maryland, 1981).

Records of the type of beers they brewed are at best sketchy, but one entertaining if highly questionable account describes a practice of producing the beer in two strengths, “one for the priests, and one for the nuns!”. The stronger of the two was, for that reason, referred to as “Priests’ Beer” and was considered a very strong beer, even by the standard of the day. That author goes on to describe his grandfather, a secular brewmaster in an abbey brewery in the year 1812, as using “barley [malt] without weighing or measuring it!” His skills of estimation apparently weren’t altogether equal to such a cavalier method: “One day when he really forced the dose, the whole convent was walking sideways for 24 hours because of it! The poor monks believed themselves possessed by the Devil, but it was only Priests’ Beer that was at fault …”


Today's Trappist Beer


Michael Jackson credits the Abbey of Scourmont, at Chimay, with being the first to brew commercially, in the 1860s. Four other Trappist abbeys followed in Belgium, plus one in the Netherlands. These six abbeys are the only breweries that can properly call their products Trappist beers, because they are the only Trappist abbeys brewing commercially. The name has the significance of an appellation, but an appellation of origin, rather than being a strict stylistic descriptor.

All of the Trappist beers have a few elements in common: they are all ales, all are bottle-conditioned, and none are simple thirst-quenchers. From there, however, the picture grows cloudier. Two (perhaps three) recognized sub-styles exist, and some Trappist beers fit into none of them. These substyles are generally termed Single, Double, and Triple, often expressed in their Flemish spellings (Dubbel, Tripel; I know of no Trappist beers that are labeled Single by their producer).

Of the three, the Single is perhaps the least familiar. This was originally a low-gravity “table beer” brewed for the exclusive use of the monks at meals and was not sold commercially until the public’s overwhelming curiosity created a market that could not be ignored. Availability is extremely spotty, and I know of none available outside of Belgium. The sole example I have tasted (Chimay) was well made, but not memorable, just as one would expect.

When people speak of Trappist beers, however, the substyle they are thinking of is generally the Double. These are big brown beers, very lightly hopped and with a powerful malt component, the maltiness expressed more as a complex fruitiness than as a uniform sweetness. There is nothing simple about Doubles. The ester component often has a dark-fruit character to it, like plums — or better, raisins — rather than a berry or banana quality. While the body is generally substantial, it is also usually less than the intense flavors would lead you to expect thanks to the addition of sugars in the kettle. These sugars are generally caramelized to some degree, and thus deepen the beer’s color as well. Frequently, the beer will be fermented with a yeast of profound character, generally providing an identifiable “house character” that may include substantial spiciness. These beers are not to be taken lightly.

The final substyle is the famous Triple, pioneered by Westmalle. Stronger yet, Triples are generally made entirely with pale (Pils) malts and light candy sugar and are generously hopped. The character of this hopping emphasizes hop flavor and aroma more than it does bitterness, though the bitterness component is decidedly firm.

For most devotees of the style outside of Belgium, the most familiar of the Trappist breweries is Chimay. Chimay’s three major products are each sold in two styles of package, and many believe that there is a substantial difference in the effects of bottle conditioning and maturation between the small, crown-capped bottles and the large corked ones. The traditional means of identifying Chimay’s beers is by the color of the crown-cap or capsule on the bottle, but the demands of marketing have made this a slightly more confusing process in recent years. Perhaps the most familiar product in the line is the Red, the corked bottle of which is labeled Première in some markets. This is the essential Double — complex, dark, malty, and fruity. Though certainly a big beer at 1.063 (15.5 °P), it is nevertheless the smallest of the trio (all gravity figures in this and succeeding paragraphs are from Michael Jackson). Chimay White, at 1.071 (17.35 °P) is bigger, though its delicate body and somewhat paler color suggest the contrary. The Triple of the line, it is far more hoppy and dry than the other Chimay beers, and in honor of the 500th anniversary of the founding of the town of Chimay it is called Cinq Cents in some markets. Leading the line is the legendary Chimay Blue, a profound and memorable beer, aptly called in its corked bottling Grande Réserve and adorned with a golden capsule, in contrast to the blue crown-cap of the smaller bottle. In the Double style again but at a gravity of 1.081 (19.62 °P), its impressive complexity includes waves of vinousness, a sherry-like nuttiness, an almost smoky quality, and hints of anise and licorice, all supported by a raisiny fruitiness. Surely this is one of the world’s great beers, and its mixing of color and flavor attributes appropriate to a Double with the gravity of a Triple clearly shows the arbitrary nature of these classifications, which the brewers themselves feel no need to follow.

One of the apparently inviolable principles at work in the world of Belgian beer is the almost aggressively creative independence of Belgian brewers. If Trappist beers are considered to fall into two major substyles, then, naturally, there will be exceptions. The most striking is Orval. They make but one beer, and the beer they make is a classic. An attractive pale beer of 1.054–1.055 (13.5–13.7 °P), it is primarily remarkable for its amazing hop nose (quite obviously dry-hopped) and hoppiness in flavor right through to its soft, delicate finish. This is perhaps the least robust of the Trappist beers in that it travels very poorly, doesn’t keep especially well, and the experience of drinking it is more dramatically affected by the drinking vessel than any other beer I’ve tasted. To truly experience Orval it must be fresh and must be sipped from a goblet, large wine glass, or large brandy snifter to properly release and focus the hop aroma.

Rochefort makes three of the most intensely flavored of the Trappist beers, all corresponding roughly to the Double substyle. The three are remarkably similar in their strong plum, raisin, and black currant palate, with ascending notes of vinousness (depending on gravity) and other complexities. The beers are called Rochefort 6, 8, and 10, referring to their gravities in the obsolete (but quite practical) system of Belgian degrees, in which 6 corresponds to an original gravity of 1.060 (15 °P), 8 corresponds to 1.080 (20 °P), and 10 corresponds to 1.100 (25 °P).

I have heard it said that all three are made from a single wort to which they add varying amounts of dark candy sugar, but while the flavors of the beers would suggest that this is indeed the case, I have been unable to verify it. And verifying such a fact as that would not be easy to do, even if the brewery were not part of a cloister suspicious of contact with the outside world. Understandably, Belgian brewers are unlikely to give away trade secrets, but they are also frequently unwilling to disappoint when questions are asked. I had visited several breweries and heard some truly remarkable things from some of the brewers, when suddenly one brewer followed an astonishing statement with an impish grin and a sly “… but I might be lying.” Reviewing my notes, I realized that much of my new-found information on brewing Belgian styles was probably worthless. Such are the hazards of research.

The beers of Westmalle correspond very closely to the Double and Triple substyles, but because the substyles are primarily described in terms of these beers, this is something of a “chicken or egg” issue. The Dubbel is smooth and rich, with chocolate and coffee-with-cream notes, and it is the only Trappist beer in which I’ve noticed a significant banana element to the esters. At 1.063 (15.7 °P), it is a substantial beer. The famed Westmalle Tripel is the beer on which all modern interpretations of the style are based, though it impressed me as being perhaps less hoppy and dry than others of its type, with more satisfying complexity. The gravity is quite high for a beer of such pale color (1.080, 20 °P), suggesting the generous use of sugar in the kettle. Michael Jackson reports that the single, previously made exclusively for the use of the monks, is now being sold to the public under the name of Extra; he describes it as delicate, very dry, and slightly salty.

Westvleteren has perhaps the smallest output of the three, with only a small part of their production going very far into the world. They have three beers, at 6, 8, and 12 Belgian degrees; of those, I have tasted only the last. Westvleteren Abt is massive and malty but not cloying, and complex, but not aggressive, warming and liqueurish, but not harshly alcoholic. A truly profound beer.

Westvleteren has another distinction: by licensing the name of their abbey, Abdij Sint Sixtus, these monks created the category of Belgian beers now known as abbey beers. This has become an immense category — Michael Jackson places the count of abbey beers at more than 70, and Pierre Rajotte cites a count of some 86 in Belgium alone. This too is a term speaking more of the origins of the beer than of its characteristics, though there is a clear relationship.

In general, abbey beers are similar to Trappist beers, seeking, in fact, to woo the same audience. Most have names with a distinctly ecclesiastical sound, and every conceivable arrangement exists concerning those names. Some, as is the case of St. Sixtus, license the name from an existing abbey, with a share of the proceeds going to the abbey. In other cases the abbey takes a more active role, in effect having a beer contract-brewed. In many cases, the names used are of abbeys that no longer exist, and in others, of abbeys that never did exist. Although a number of these beers are impressively distinctive, few are truly memorable, and all look to the Trappist beers for their inspiration.


Brewing in the Style


These are not simply big beers. They are rich and complex, with a range of appropriate flavors and a few amusing quirks. Thanks to Belgian tax law, no beers may be brewed between 1.054 (13.5 °P) and 1.062 (15.5 °P); 1.062 (15.5 Plato) represents the practical minimum gravity for beers of this type.

Beyond question, these are expensive beers to make. Materials are very important in achieving the right type of malt flavor. In brewing a Triple, unquestionably the best malt to use is a good Belgian Pils malt; substituting domestic two-row will produce a fuller, more cloying beer. Pils malt should also be the basis of a Double, with such malts as Cara-Vienne, Cara-Munich, Special B, and Biscuit (DeWolf Cosyns, Brussels) providing both color and flavor. Of these, Special B is unusually significant, because it especially tends to impart the raisiny, plummy flavors so treasured in this style. It is very easy to overuse this malt, though. Extracts can be used as part of the fermentables, but this practice is more than a little risky. As is the case with domestic grains, the danger arises from the unfermentable sugars, which can easily leave a sticky, cloying flavor inappropriate to the style.

Sugar is another very important ingredient in these styles, and in many places getting the right sugars can pose some significant problems. Sugars are quite commonly used adjuncts in brewing, and the form in which they are generally used in Belgium is “candy sugar.” This sugar is created by superheating and then cooling a highly concentrated sucrose solution. One Belgian producer lists a candy sugar syrup suitable for use in baking, confectionery, pharmaceutical syrups, and “special high fermentation beers” as being 79–80% dry extract, composed of approximately equal amounts of sucrose and invertose, available in color ranges of either 300–425 EBC units or 1700–2000 EBC units. For a Double, this would be exactly what’s needed. For a Triple a pale sugar is much more suitable, but because the nominal composition of light candy sugars appears to be no different from that of common table sugar, substitution should present no problem. I personally have not tried light candy sugar and have found table sugar perfectly workable, especially if inverted using the method described by Frane.

Much of the defining flavor of these styles comes from the yeast. It is important to use a yeast known to produce the sort of flavor you are looking for and to use a strain tolerant of high-gravity beers. Many yeast strains behave differently at high gravities than in more normal ranges, in some cases becoming quite temperature sensitive. Generous pitching rates should be the rule. A few years ago, the most common practice was to culture the dregs from a bottle-conditioned Trappist beer, but surprises were not uncommon — and were rarely pleasant — from that practice. An excellent assortment of Belgian yeast cultures is now available.

The selection of hops is obviously more important in making a Triple than a Double, but care is important in both cases. While the flavors in these beers are pronounced, they are never harsh, and hopping should be set accordingly. It is my experience that for any given level of bittering, the cleanest and softest flavor is achieved by using low-alpha “noble” hops as bittering hops; Saaz, Hallertauer, and Tettnanger all work very well in these styles. Styrian Goldings give an outstanding flavor to Doubles, and a combination of Hallertauer and Kent Goldings is my favorite for Triples. Fuggles and Northern Brewer have their uses, and even Cascade, in very small quantities, can be used to brighten flavor highlights, though very floral hops intrude on the malt and yeast qualities, creating a much less interesting beer. “Superhops” such as Chinook have no place in these refined and subtle styles.


So Get Brewing


The number of entries in these categories in homebrew contests continues to grow, and more and more commercial breweries are providing beers of this type in response to customer demand. Though they require considerable care and some ingredients that are not always easy to find, these beers are perfectly practical and intensely rewarding for the small-scale brewer to make.

Related Products

All contents copyright 2024 by MoreFlavor Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this document or the related files may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means (electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher.